The 50-Minute-Meeting Revolution and the End of Back-to-Back Meetings!

Written by Vu Le

Hi everyone. Confession: I don’t hate most meetings. I mean, if you think about it, in our sector meetings often mean we get to spend time with usually awesome people to brainstorm ideas on how to make the world better. This is something our ancestors, who likely worked long hours doing manual labor, probably dreamed about for us: “One day, our descendants will be paid to sit, eat tiny oranges that are easy to peel, and talk while others write stuff on the walls.”

However, it seems lately that meetings have been out of control. The pandemic, which should have slowed us down, somehow increased the numbers of meetings we each have. It’s so easy and acceptable now to have virtual meetings. Not having to drive, find parking, shower, and brush one’s teeth means many people end up with more frequent back-to-back meetings. I’ve had days when I’ve had 5 or more. One colleague I know said she had 12 in one day!

A while ago I wrote “12 New Rules for Virtual Meetings, Since We’re Still In a Pandemic” which included “Rule 2: All one-hour meetings will now default to be 50 minutes. The therapists got the right idea. Having 50-minute meetings prevents the stress of back-to-back meetings without breaks and will give us all time to run to the bathroom, grab a snack, take a rapid test, or stare out the window and shake our fists at the sky in futile resentment.”

And now there’s research to back this up. Thanks to colleagues on LinkedIn like Beth Kanter, you may have seen this recent study done by Microsoft that shows having back-to-back meetings is bad for our brain, creativity, productivity, etc. Going from one meeting right into the next places a lot of stress on our noggins. There’s evidence that having breaks allows our brains to reset, focus, and engage.

Of course, this study just confirms what most of us already knew. The problem is how do we change habits that have been ingrained in us over hundreds of years? Capitalism culture has us equating having tons of meetings with being productive and effective. And also the reverse: That having breaks and doing “nothing” is “lazy” and “bad” and “Vu, it’s been 37 minutes; can you get back to facilitating this workshop on ‘The Golden Girls as Leadership Styles’ that we paid you a lot of money to do?” (Such a Sophia thing to say!)

Anyway, all of us need to start unlearning ingrained stuff and shift our habits. Especially supervisors and others who have formal power at organizations, you have a particular responsibility to create change. Here are some things I encourage us all to do:

Discuss the above article with your team: Have people read the above article in advance and then add it to your next team meeting agenda. Here are some questions you can use in your discussion: “Which of the study findings surprised you the most?” “Which solutions do you think we should implement?” “OK, did anyone read this article at all?” “I am very disappointed in us…”

Do a quick org-wide and individual “meetings audits”: Run through all the standing meetings that you have. See if some of them are even necessary. Maybe a few can be less frequent. Or shorter. Or can just be an email thread or Slack discussion. Then ask each person to do a personal meetings audit by scanning through their calendars and seeing how frequently they have back-to-back meetings. Look at the person who has the most back-to-back meetings. Look at them! Those haunted eyes! Is that what you want to look like?!

Agree to turn all 1-hour meetings into 50-minute meetings: Get everyone to indicate that all one-hour meetings, virtual and in-person, if they need to happen at all, will now be 50-minutes. Get an artistic staff member to design a manifesto on a piece of easel paper, and then have everyone draw outlines of their hands, write their names in their hand outlines, and decorate the outlines to serve as signatures. I saw my kids’ preschool do this for their classroom rules, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for adults.

Read full article here.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.